“Jeffrey Robinson’s Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” means to be timely, coming less than a year after the death of George Floyd (25 May 2020), but with the rise of AAPI hate crimes since February of last year, the documentary is part of a symptom of the problem: a binary view of racism heavily dependent upon East Coast history. Robinson’s narrative mixes the personal with the historic, but gives us only a fragmented view of racism in the US, one that isn’t new except for his personal angle. From my personal perspective, the East Coast bias of history is one of the things that hurts the understanding of a country that also had a Midwest, a Southwest and a Pacific Coast as well as Pacific Islands.
The documentary tells us via intertitles that Jeffery Robinson has been a lawyer for 40 years. What it doesn’t say is he is the deputy legal director and the director of the ACLU Trone Center for Justice and Equality. The ACLU website explains that the center “houses the organization’s work on criminal justice, racial justice, and reform issues.” According to the ACLU website, he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1981, worked in Seattle and was one of the original members of the John Adams Project and worked on behalf of one of the give men held at Guantanamo Bay charged with carrying out the 9/11 attacks. He’s a faculty member of the National Criminal Defense College in Macon, Georgia and regularly speaks on the role of race in the criminal justice system.
The documentary flits between a speaking engagement before an audience and his on-locations interviews with the relatives of victims of police brutality. The festival’s online synopsis clearly states this documentary is about anti-Black racism.
ACLU lawyer Jeffery Robinson’s shattering talk on the history of U.S. anti-Black racism is interwoven with archival footage, interviews and Robinson’s story, exploring the legacy of white supremacy and our collective responsibility to overcome it.
The intertitles also tell us somewhat melodramatically before Robinson launches into his talk that “Tonight, he argues his most important case.” I did not find his argument convincing. I found it biased.
To begin, Robinson asks, “If you have ever owned a slave, please raise your hand.” Of course, no one raises their hand. He the notes, “Slavery is not our fault. We didn’t do it. We didn’t cause it. It’s not our responsibility, but it is our shared history and when we try to turn it into something that it’s not, when we try and make more light of it than it was, then we are denying who we really are and we are impeding our ability to truly move forward as a community or as a nation.”
The first on-location foray is to Robinson’s hometown, Memphis, Tennessee. The specific location is the Lorraine Motel where on 4 April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. We get a view of the motel and the location from which his assassin took aim. When Robinson was 11 years old, a week before the assassination, his father took him and his younger brother to a march in support of the Memphis Sanitation Strike. A young Black man, Larry Payne, was killed by a police officer. Robinson says, “How lucky I was not to end up like Larry Payne.”
When he died, Payne was sixteen. His funeral was on 2 April 1968.
In 2011, we learn that Robinson became the parent of a 13-year-old boy as a result of his sister-in-law’s death. The boy is Puerto Rican, Taino Indian and African American, but Robinson asserts that from the perspective of the world, his son is a Black man and that entails certain dangers.
Some people like Braxton Spivey don’t understand what it means to be Black. In an interview, Spivey, a West Ashley resident and president of Flags Across the South, asserts that the slaves “chose to stay” and “they were treated like family.” Yet Robinson reveals that after taking an implicit association test, he learned that he himself held a bias against African American men. The prejudice against African American men is “so deep in our DNA to sometimes we don’t realize they’re even there.”
My first question was: Is sadness really a negative emotion? The other problem is that I find that in typing my left hand is faster than my right, but in drawing or playing piano my right hand is better. I also am not very good at keyboard video games. When I perform a cartwheel, although I write with my right hand, I perform cartwheels left-handed. I don’t know if the test takes that into account. There is research on people who are more decidedly right-handed or left-handed to suggest there is a difference in reaction time:
Thirty-two right-handed young adults (16 males, 16 females; 18-25 years old) were tested in a simple or choice reaction time task. They responded to a left and/or right visual target by moving their left and/or right middle fingers between two keys on each side of the midline. Right hand reaction time did not differ from left hand reaction time. Submovement times were longer for the right hand than the left hand when the response was bilateral. Pause times were shorter for the right hand than the left hand, both when the responses were unilateral or bilateral. Reaction time results indicate that the putatively more efficient response preparation by the left hemisphere motor mechanisms is not expressed behaviorally. Submovement time and pause time results indicate that the putatively more efficient response execution by the left hemisphere motor mechanisms is expressed behaviorally. In the case of the submovements, the less efficient motor control of the left hand would be compensated by a more intense attention to this hand.
There has been criticism of the implicit association test. According to Psychological.org:
Opinions on the IAT are mixed. Controversy about the test was evident in a 2013 meta-analysis by APS Fellows Fred Oswald and Phillip E. Tetlock and colleagues. They found weaker correlations between IAT scores and discriminatory behavior compared with what Greenwald, Banaji, and their colleagues found in a 2009 meta-analysis.
A 2017 article in TheCut.com concludes:
A pile of scholarly work, some of it published in top psychology journals and most of it ignored by the media, suggests that the IAT falls far short of the quality-control standards normally expected of psychological instruments. The IAT, this research suggests, is a noisy, unreliable measure that correlates far too weakly with any real-world outcomes to be used to predict individuals’ behavior — even the test’s creators have now admitted as such. The history of the test suggests it was released to the public and excitedly publicized long before it had been fully validated in the rigorous, careful way normally demanded by the field of psychology. In fact, there’s a case to be made that Harvard shouldn’t be administering the test in its current form, in light of its shortcomings and its potential to mislead people about their own biases.
Remember, that Robinson is not a psychologist. He is a lawyer. He is also not a journalist or a historian.
In an interview, Robinson introduces us to Tiffany Crutcher, the twin of Terence Crutcher. On 16 September 2016, the 40-year-old Crutcher was shot and killed by police officer Betty Jo Shelby in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tiffany says, “My brother did not deserved to die, unarmed with his hands in the air.” However, we don’t hear Shelby’s side. A journalist would want both points of view.
Back on stage, during a talk, Robinson reminds us of the tribulations of a police state by referencing George Orwell’s “1984.” Orwell was not writing about a year, he tells us.
What Orwell stated was, “1984 was based chiefly on communism, because that is the dominant form of totalitarianism, but I was trying chiefly to imagine what communism would be like if it were firmly rooted in the English speaking countries, and was no longer a mere extension of the Russian Foreign Office.”
Robinson uses two quotes from Orwell and what he calls “the mindset of oppression”:
- “Who controls the past controls the future”
- “Who controls the present controls the past”
According to Robinson, “a government that is in power has the ability to shape the views of the population it governs by putting out a narrative that sometimes has nothing to do with the truth.” From there, Robinson quotes then-president Donald Trump on the Civil War and Andrew Jackson (during a 1 May 2017 interview on Sirius XM’s POTUS channel with Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito):
I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’
Trump is not particularly known for knowing history nor telling the truth. This is an easy win as Robinson points out that Andrew Jackson died over a decade before the Civil War (Trump has his own explanation via Twitter to explain this). Yet does it really prove Robinson’s contention about a narrative that has nothing to do with the truth?
Robinson reminds us of what Jackson did about slavery. When one of his own slaves escape, he put out an ad with a reward.
From there, Robinson takes us on location to the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, NC where Ista Clarke talks about the oppression. Then back on stage, Robinson reminds us that “America was founded on white supremacy” yet he uses the date of 1619, the year 20 African slaves landed in Jamestown.
In doing so, Robinson favors and Anglo-centric version of history, one that ignores Latino heritage. Yes, African slaves came to Virginia in 1619. The Spanish, however, brought African slaves to the future US territories before that.
- “Virginia Marks the Dawn of Slavery in 1619 with Solemn Speeches and Songs“
- “Before 1619, There Was 1526: The Mystery of the First Enslaved Africans in What Became the United States“
Jamestown was founded in 1607, yet the first known European settlement on US territory was Caparra, in what is now the municipality of Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, settled in 1508. The settlement moved to the site, Puerto Rico, and in 1921 became known as Puerto Rico de San Juan Bautista. In Puerto Rico, African slaves were introduced during the 1500s. According to David M. Stark’s 2009 paper, “A New Look at the African Slave Trade in Puerto Rico Through the Use of Parish Registers: 1660-1815″:
African slavery was made legal in the Spanish Caribbean in 1501. Ten years later, the first black slaves were brought to Puerto Rico in order to work at the foundry established in Caparra (the island’s first European settlement). With the decline of the indi-genous population, it was necessary to supplement and eventually to replace Indian slave labour then used in gold mining. On 18 August 1518 the Crown authorised Lorenzo de Gouvenod, the Flemish governor of Bresa, to introduce 500 slaves into Puerto Rico as part of a licence whereby he was granted to dispatch 4000 slaves to the Antilles.Thereafter, African slaves were introduced in large numbers. By 1530, Africans comprised 2284 or 69 per cent of the island’s enslaved labourers, while Amer-indians accounted for the remaining 1043 or 31 per cent.
- 1636: First American-made slave ship, the Desire, is built in Massassachusetts
- 1662: Children of enslaved women legally becomes slaves, signifying the regular rape of enslaved women being normal
- 1669: An enslaved person’s death while resisting a master is not a felony
- 1739: Stono slave rebellion in South Carolina
- 1740: 58-chapter Law on how a slave may be kept in due subjugation and obedience
Further, in the case of sexual relations between a male master and a female servant, it is entirely possible that the female servant was raped. In any event, even if the master did not actually rape the servant, at the very least he voluntarily chose to enter into sexual relations with her. That probably was not the case for the female servant. Since the master held almost absolute power over her life, her having sexual intercourse and bearing his child may not have been voluntary.
In 1662 most if not all of the indentured female servants were white. This first snapshot gives a brief demonstration of one aspect of precept 1: white male domination over white women, If a black female indentured servant had existed at the time, she would have been subjected to similar denigration and exploitation for the benefit of white males.
The rape of White servants and Black slaves was normal.
Robinson then takes us to visit the Hanging Tree on Ashley Avenue in historic downtown Charleston, NC. He talks about how White supremacy is written into the US Constitution, including the 3/5’s clause and the electoral college. Then he repeats the oft used notion that modern-day police departments were originally formed, especially in the South, from slave patrols. Robinson visits the NYC Commodities Exchange where slave holders went to get their endeavors insured and tells the audience that from 1711 to 1762, one in five workers in NYC were enslaved. He intones, “Ignorance is not bliss because it allows a false history to thrive.”
The idea that police departments were originally formed from slave patrols is only partially true. According to a 2017 Time Magazine article, “How the US Got Its Police Force,” the police force is “a relatively modern invention.” Writer Olivia B. Waxman uses Eastern Kentucky University crime historian Gary Potter as her expert. During colonial times, policing had been informal and “as the nation grew, however, different regions made us of different policing systems.” According to this article, “The first publicly funded, organized police force with officers on duty full-time was created in Boston in 1838.” The impetus was the merchants of this large commercial shipping center who argued for “the collective good.”
Regionally, the article supports Robinson in one context:
In the South, however, the economics that drove the creation of police forces were centered not on the protection of shipping interests but on the preservation of the slavery system. Some of the primary policing institutions there were the slave patrols tasked with chasing down runaways and preventing slave revolts, Potter says; the first formal slave patrol had been created in the Carolina colonies in 1704. During the Civil War, the military became the primary form of law enforcement in the South, but during Reconstruction, many local sheriffs functioned in a way analogous to the earlier slave patrols, enforcing segregation and the disenfranchisement of freed slaves.
A 2020 article by Jill Lepore, “The Invention of the Police: Why did American Policing get so Big, so Fast? The Answer, mainly, Is Slavery” (13 July 2020), in The New Yorker states slave patrols began in Cuba in the 1530s and the English adopted the practice in Barbados a century later.
South Carolina, founded by slaveowners from Barbados, authorized its first slave patrol in 1702; Virginia followed in 1726, North Carolina in 1753.
Lepore’s article disputes when modern urban policing began. Did it begin in 1838, with Boston? That was followed by other states establishing their police departments: “New York established a police department in 1844; New Orleans and Cincinnati followed in 1852, then, later in the eighteen-fifties, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Baltimore.”
For Lepore: “Modern American policing began in 1909, when August Vollmer became the chief of the police department in Berkeley, California. Vollmer refashioned American police into an American military. He’d served with the Eighth Army Corps in the Philippines in 1898. “
There’s an argument that during the “Progressive Era, Vollmer-style policing criminalized Blackness, as the historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad argued in his 2010 book, ‘The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.’” In Los Angeles, “What became the Chicano movement began in Southern California, with Mexican immigrants’ protests of the L.A.P.D. during the first half of the twentieth century, even as a growing film industry cranked out features about Klansmen hunting Black people, cowboys killing Indians, and police chasing Mexicans.”
However, according to the LAPD website, the birth of the LAPD began in 1868, under Mayor Cristobal Aguilar with the first patrolmen hired in 1869. The lawlessness of Los Angeles–gunslingers, bandits and gamblers–was the catalyst according to the Los Angeles Police Museum. The first Black officer was hired in 1886 (Robert William Stewart) and the first police matron, Mrs. Lucy Gray, in 1888.
Robinson also talks about reparations. In 1862, before the Emancipation Proclamation, there was a Compensation Emancipation Act which gave reparations to slave owners. He rails against the refusal to give Blacks any land despite “millions of acres of land” in the West and Midwest available to White people, and land given to build land-grant colleges. He shows Martin Luther King Jr talking about federal subsidies. This seems to reference “General Sherman’s Civil War plan to divide up plantations and give each freed slave ’40 acres and a mule’ as reparations.” However, the land for the land grants was taken from another ethnic group: Native Americans. The 1830 Indian Removal Act Land “forcibly relocated Cherokee, Creeks and other eastern Indians to west of the Mississippi River to make room for white settlers.”
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act which was supposed to give citizens opportunities to farm, but this system was abused by land speculators and also displaced Native Americans. “By 1900, settlers, legitimate or otherwise, had gobbled up 80 million acres of land through the Homestead Act. To make way for the homesteaders, the federal government forced Native American tribes off of their ancestral lands and onto reservations,” according to History.com.
Mexican land owners also suffered losses and domestic violence during and after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo effectively ended that war, but even in 2018, issues of lands lost remain “a hot topic in the American Southwest more than 160 years after the war ended.”
Land was also denied to Asians arriving at the West Coast because the 1790 Naturalization Act only allowed “free white persons” to become citizens. During the Reconstruction Period, in the West, Chinese were driven out of towns and massacred. Alien land laws prevented the Chinese and others from owning land.
Reconstruction in the South, Robinson says was working. Before 1868, there were 700,000 Black registered (male) voters. In the South, 2,000 Black men served in office, but President Rutherford Hayes withdrew federal troops from the South. In Louisiana, that mean that in 1896, the 130,344 registered voters went down to 5,320 voters.
Then Robinson lists lynchings of Black people without crediting his source or giving us a comparison to understand the relative importance of the number as in a small town or a larger community:
- 1902 85
Then he states, between 1877 to 1950, there were 4,000 lynching of Black people in America. This is likely an estimate taken from the Equal Justice Initiative but the important detail was this is limited to the South, specifically “Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.”
However, between 1848 to 1928, historians William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb conservatively “catalogued 597 lynchings of persons of Mexican origin or descent in the United States.” Most of these cases took place in Texas (282), California (188), Arizona (59) and New Mexico (49). If you’ve traveled the Southwest, you’ll understand that the population density is different than places like Arkansas and Louisiana. “Breaking down the incidents, Carrigan and Webb found that the years between 1848-1879 had the astonishing lynching rate of 473 per 100,000 people. ” Yet, the researchers also note:
By the turn of the twentieth century, the rate had reduced to 27.4 lynching victims per 100,000. As a matter of comparison, in the same period rates of lynching for African Americans in the South varied from North Carolina’s 11 per 100,000 to Alabama’s 32.4 per 100,000.
As in the case of Black lynchings in the South, law officers actively colluded so that lynch mobs could terrorize people of Mexican descent without fear of reprisal.
In the documentary, Robinson also gives us an account of people like Eric Garner who died in Staten Island after an NYPD officer put him in a chokehold (17 July 2014). Yet the documentary doesn’t note that in the small town of Las Cruces, the 40-year-old Antonio Valenzuela died as a result of a chokehold on 29 February 2020.
A Washington Post AP article, “Activists: Police Killings of Latinos Lack Attention” on 17 August 2020, addressed the disparity of attention that “Latino cases seldom garner national attention, even when caught on video”:
Monica Muñoz Martinez, the author of “The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas,” police killings of Latinos don’t evoke the same emotion nationally because most Americans don’t know about this violent history of the American West involving Latinos. “This country also can’t discuss race outside of a Black-white binary,” Martinez said. “And that does not paint the true history of white supremacy.”
The demographics of LA County are 9 percent Black and 48.6 percent Hispanic/Latino of any race, yet when Centro CSO Community Service Organization convened a Black Lives Matter protest outside of Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights, despite the presence of Black and Native American speakers, the high number of Latino speakers drew backlash.
“We got an angry message that said we really needed to have had way more speakers who were not Latino or Chicanos,” Márquez said. “I was so angry. Who they were referring to were people who had family members who had died at the hands of LAPD….Chicanos.”
Robinson also covers the 1 June 1921 massacre in Greenwood, Oklahoma as well as the 1955 death of Emmitt Till in Mississippi. The EJI found that racial terror lynchings in other states were most common in Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Oklahoma was, at the time of the American Civil War, Indian Territory and didn’t fall under US jurisdiction until 1890. It became a state in 1907. Kansas entered the Union in 1861.
Robinson also talks about redlining as a means by which federal, state and local governments “deliberately sabotaged Black home ownership.” He displays the city maps of several major cities, including those outside of the South. As a current resident of the City of Los Angeles, I recognized some problems when Robinson presented the 1939 Map of Housing Inequality.
The KCET article on “Segregation in the City of Angeles,” explains:
Through its 1935 City Survey Program, the HOLC gathered data about neighborhoods from approximately 239 cities and compiled the results into a rating system ranging from A to D. Communities with A ratings represented the best investments for homeowners and banks alike; B, neighborhoods that were still desirable, C, those in decline, and D, areas considered hazardous. To visually capture these rankings, the HOLC then turned these ratings into color-coded maps, using green for A, blue for B, yellow for C, and red for D – the origin of the term “redlining.”
The HOLC and FHA valued homogeneity over heterogeneity, particularly for race and ethnicity:
Those communities depicted in “red” usually contained minorities: African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, and sometimes newly arrived immigrant groups like Slavs, Jews, and Italians. This system of redlining ultimately drew private investment away from heterogeneous communities like Boyle Heights and Watts.
In Los Angeles, the redlining wasn’t just against Black people.
The map’s depiction of several iconic L.A. communities makes this bias even clearer. According to appraisers, Boyle Heights (D53) proved a “’melting pot’ area, literally honeycombed with diverse and subversive elements.” Watts (D61), then an ethnic and racial stew of Germans, Scots, Greeks, Italians, blacks, and Japanese, earned a “low red” grade due to its heterogeneity. If “not for a scattering of Japanese and Filipino residents [Hollywood (D29) (D30)] would be entitled to a higher grade,” HOLC officials noted in justifying its D rating. Central Los Angeles dismayed appraisers due to its “highly heterogeneous” population and “sprinkling of subversive racial elements,” the latter comment a reference to its “concentrations of Japanese and Negroes.” Bunker Hill’s (D37) declining housing stock and nonwhite population also earned it a D rating; a brief perusal of the map reveals that nearly all the neighborhoods abutting downtown Los Angeles were redlined.
In 1940, Los Angeles County had a population of 2,785,643 of which 75,209 were classified as Black. The Japanese population was 36,866 and the Chinese population was 5,330. The Mexican American population was only counted in the 1930 Census.
Such policies demonstrate that the FHA and HOLC established a caste system of race and ethnicity. Racial hierarchies prevailed. Assessors in Los Angeles, historian Charlotte Brooks argues, saw Asians and Africans as the most “subversive.” In contrast, Southern and Eastern Europeans and Mexicans with the right mix of social class, occupation and skin color could “climb the ladder of whiteness.” For example, one neighborhood in the L.A. suburb of Claremont (C55, C56) received a C rather than D rating since it contained a “few better class Mexicans.” The San Gabriel Valley Wash community, more heavily Mexican-American, received no such consideration as one assessor described it as populated by “goats, rabbits, and dark skinned babies.” Most might have been native-born, but too many were still “’peon Mexicans” and constitut[ed] a distinctly subversive racial influence.” In her own research, L.A. historian Laura Redford of Scripps College, notes that while Japanese and African-Americans were singled out, too, the language describing Mexican-Americans in the Los Angeles area proved particularly “painful” and “awful”.
Once redlining plunged a community into the vicious circle of decline, municipal and federal officials would then categorize such neighborhoods as “blighted.” Urban renewal ensued, a process that victimized minorities at ever increasing rates. Witness Bunker Hill and after it, Chavez Ravine. The former became the site of California’s first urban renewal project, setting in motion, in Hise’s telling, a “fifty-year effort to being affluent Angelenos ‘downtown.’” The latter famously resulted in the ouster of a local Mexican-American community to clear the way, eventually, for Dodger Stadium. In numerous other cases, allegedly blighted communities, like Boyle Heights, became the site for freeways, undoing and marginalizing whole communities.
The KCET articles notes the effects were felt by Latino and Asian communities as well as Black communities. That is racism in Los Angeles. A 2018 PBS Newshour investigation concluded that modern-day redlining affects Black and Latino mortgage applicants. A Brooklyn native looking to buy in Philadelphia is the first case examined.
Toward the end, Robinson circles back to Memphis and recalls how his parents bought a house in a predominately White neighborhood and the subterfuge required to do it. They were not immediately accepted into the neighborhood. Robinson and his siblings attended a Catholic school and meeting with his White classmates, he learns of a racist incident that he’d been shielded from by his friends and the school’s administrators when they went to play a game in Mississippi. I wonder about the hardships my parents faced, but they moved into a house next to a Mexican American family on one side and a German family on the other. It was not a well-to-do area and was even as I attended high school, semi-rural with a nearby tomato field. My father, like Robinson’s father, had a gun(s). My widowed mother faced racial harassment while I was away at college as the city became more urbanized and yet not necessarily more civilized. The Ku Klux Klan was active in Southern California but it targeted Latinos and Asians, not Black Americans originally.
Without understanding that Robinson’s presentation is often one-sided (without the opinion of the police department’s involved), focused on East Coast historically and often centered on one specific region, one gets a distorted view of history. Without comparing the plight of other racial and ethnic minorities, one doesn’t understand the relative impact on the US and the full scope of racism in the US. Robinson’s version of history thus, by his own logic, that by turning history into something it is not, is impeding our ability to move forward as a community and as a nation unless he believes that this only applies to attitudes toward slavery. Remember Robinson says, “Ignorance is not bliss because it allows a false history to thrive.” Without understanding the history of the West, without understanding the history of anti-Latino, anti-Native American and anti-Asian discrimination, the history learned is one of a binary of Black and White. In a time of when questions of immigration have resulted in violence against Latinos such as the 2019 El Paso shooting at Gateway West El Paso Walmart or the rise in anti-Asian violence related to COVID-19, a binary approach is not by definition an examination of “Race in America.”